Broken Glass - Reviews
Review by Simon Jenner
Miller took 40 years to write this play; late on it underwent revision, some superb material inserted last. From the 19803 the British - particularly director David Thacker — kept Miller’s stock high whilst his reputation languished in
November 1938. Sylvia Gellburg suddenly develops unaccountable paralysis. She’s terrified by news of Kristallnacht where Nazis force old men to clean streets with toothbrushes. Her husband Philip who spends his life effacing his Jewishness, says he can’t understand it. He works for an anti-Semite who helps the Gellburgs’ son to West Point, a then anomalous Jewish career soldier. As we discover, access isn’t acceptance.
We open in Dr Harry Hyman’s office where Philip’s subjected to the terrifying laugh of specifically non-Jewish Margaret Hymans played as a scintillating vignette by Jen Ley. Hyman (rarely Harry) is a horse-riding GP and amateur Freudian, his apparently un-Jewish horsemanship in fact inherited from Odessa horse-dealers he informs Philip later. The play revels in these stereotype—breakers and occasional makers like un-anxious Margaret.
Hyman thinks he can help. Philip masks his inability to make love to his wife in bravado till Hyman learns more, confronting Sylvia who Philip concedes ‘could have run the Federal Reserve’ if she’d been a man, lamenting giving up
business to marry. Bedridden, Sylvia still dispenses advice to her offstage nephew.
Bob Ryder’s Philip the mannequin encased in black spends the performance peeling it off, crumbling into a yowl of humanity as more is stripped from him. Growing attraction between Sylvia and Hyman manifests in his increasingly urgent pleas to reveal what’s holding her down, his warnings to her health, her ‘beautiful body’. Sylvia kisses Hyman. Philip has his suspicions, wanting other opinions; so does Hyman. What Hyman uncovers increases his compassion for
Sylvia’s reaction to Kristallnacht’s a symptom of something she’s denying. Miller subverts Jewish typiﬁcation to confront greater issues of identity. Oliver Maigniez invests the right level of swooping passion — he’s believably
the tall local heart-throb exuding élan but balancing authority with voluble watchfulness. Janice Jones as Sylvia is forced to act upright in bed, thus her face expresses everything her body can’t. Her vehemence too especially
towards the end, builds a performance of stature. ‘What did I do with my life?... I took better care of my shoes.’
Praise too for the way that her sister, common-sense Harriet played by Lyn Snowdon is able to lift Jones in role from wheelchair to bed so that at no time does Jones’ Sylvia get out of bed when the lights dim. Maigniez and others manage this; it’s one of the production’s minor miracles that such movement directions are executed so ﬂuently, essential as it is. Snowdon’s blunt—speaking younger sister acts as similar chorus to Ley’s Margaret.
Meanwhile Philip who’s given bad advice honestly, discovers the depths of contempt Mel Shiri’s Stanton Case holds for him. Catastrophe falls unexpectedly.
The play moves in duets. Just before the climactic scene we’re finally treated to a trio Miller inserted almost last, where Sylvia, Margaret and Harriet reflect on illness and humanity. Lyne has beautifully positioned this downstage centre, so its valedictory commentary by two characters isn’t lost, nor its relation to the final scenes. It’s extrovert Margaret who notes acutely of a ward of new-born babies how one lies ‘stiff as a banker... one happy as a young horse. The next one is Miss Dreary, already worried about her hemline drooping.’ Her point is you’re born with your nature; Margaret’s sparkling affirmation bounces off her husband’s socialist beliefs.
This is how the Upstairs should be used. Jezz Bowden’s sound catches Klezmer—like inflections with a dark aural suggestiveness. Pat Boxall heads the best lighting team I’ve ever seen at NVT — particularly effective in shimmering light over the bed. Simon Glazier’s set gratefully soaks it in, from the walnut medical desk downstage right to the bed stage left with its silken turquoise; and small chair and table upstage centre functioning as office. Each is period. Best is the authentic copy of contemporary bestseller Anthony Adverse with a palpably original—looking 19303 cover, as if mint; and New York Times (though was that a colour photo inside?). Jerry Lyne’s directed some superb things, but this must be one of the finest.
Review by Julia French, for Broadway Baby
Written when he was nearly 70 years old, Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, had been in his mind’s development ever since his marriage to Marilyn Monroe ended shortly before her death in 1962. His portrait of a troubled woman who is the subject of doctors’ scrutiny may well have resonance. Instead of a Hollywood starlet, Broken Glass tells the story of Sylvia Gelberg, a very ordinary but deeply feeling Jewish woman from Brooklyn in 1938. Struck down by a mystery paralysis that conﬁnes her to bed and wheelchair, she has been obsessively following the events in Germany following the Kristallnacht. Pouring over the newspapers with elegant fragility, she rails against everyone’s supposed indifference to the violent events happening a continent away.
This is a gripping and thought provoking evening with every member of the cast giving a compelling performance Her worried and adoring husband, Phillip, seeks the attentions of Dr Hyman, who concludes that the illness is psychosomatic. Despite having little knowledge of the field, he determines to treat her by delving into the cause, and the history of the Gelberg’s marriage unfolds to Hyman’s seductive and sympathetic ear.
Miller’s later work has not been judged kindly but Broken Glass is widely recognised as an exception and it showcases his beautifully mundane dialogue in a compellingly human story. New Venture Theatre have managed to capture an especially good atmosphere with this production. With a spare but effective set you are surprisingly quickly submerged in an authentic depiction of 19305 Brooklyn, the minutia rattled off by Sylvia’s sister Harriet, played by Lyn
Snowdon snippily and to a lot of laughs, contributes heavily to the connection with this community. The furniture, the lighting and sound all serve their part to settle you into the creation. To be transported from here into a detailed
visualisation of the growing menace on the streets of Berlin merely by Sylvia’s verbal description is impressive.
Janice Jones’s habitation of Sylvia is marvellous. She gives Sylvia's sense of confusion, anger and anxiety real depth and emotional pull. It makes Dr Hyman's fascination with his patient very understandable. Although this is a very good looking piece of theatre, some of the exchanges with Sylvia are set far to the right of the stage. This does limit the visual enjoyment for some seats and a small move inwards would have been appreciated.
Bob Ryder's deliberate and peevish portrayal of Philip is one that builds as the play progresses and we examine his uneasy relationship with his own Jewishness and the crushing weight of long held hurts in his marriage. The final exchange with his vaguely anti- Semitic boss is powerful and a clear reminder that the character came from the same pen as Willy Loman. Against the frigidity of the Gelberg’s marriage, Dr Hyman and his wife are played by Olivier Maigniez and Jen Ley to be adorably warm and sexy — totally engaging both together and apart.
This is a gripping and thought provoking evening with every member of the cast giving a compelling performance. To be enjoyed in a serious frame of mind.